Chester Planning Commission takes a step toward consensus

By Shawn  Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

While it may have been the most constructive meeting of the Chester Planning Commission since Feb. 17, the word “quagmire” best described the Monday night meeting right up to the final minutes when its members — less Barre Pinske who exited abruptly apparently upset at the direction the meeting was taking — agreed on at least the first step forward in continuing its work on the regulations that govern zoning, subdivision and flood hazard mitigation called the Unified Development Bylaws.

Back in February, while updating the Chester Select Board on the progress toward finishing updated bylaws, then commission chair Peter Hudkins criticized the work of the panel rather than giving the report the group had worked on and expected to  hear. In the weeks that followed, Hudkins was removed from the chair, commission member Cheryl Joy Lipton whose term expired was not re-appointed and the Select Board put then-recording secretary Cathy Hasbrouck and Chester resident Hugh Quinn on the panel to replace Lipton and retiring member Naomi Johnson.

Since then, commission meetings have tended to split into two camps over issues like how understandable the proposed regulations are and what is the best way to approach adopting them – as a whole or in pieces – with newcomer Quinn often in the middle as when he “flipped a coin” to put Hasbrouck in the chair.  And that’s how Monday’s meeting went.

Commission member Hugh Quinn, foreground, begins to work through his questions

The meeting started with a discussion of more than two dozen questions Quinn had written out as he attempted to get up to speed after reading the proposed bylaws.

And while the group did not get much further than the sixth question, the answers given by the members were often contradictory, illuminating and even surprising.

Quinn asked what the target is for adopting the new bylaws. Hasbrouck said that there are deadlines for Town Plan updates, but not for bylaws. That said, she noted that the next plan update has to be done by 2023 and so the bylaws should be out of the way by 2022 so the commission can shift to the plan.

Commission member Tim Roper wanted to move faster saying, “From my perspective the influx of new property owners here in Chester has been significant driven by the situation with Covid and to me that creates some urgency to get the new bylaws in place … we might  get some development we would prefer to not have that would be out of  alignment our Town Plan.”

Quinn’s questions on a shared screen

In answer to Quinn’s question about the greatest gap or risk in the current bylaws, Roper said it was the lack of alignment with the Town Plan, again asserting that the town manager (David Pisha at the time) and the Select Board had requested the complete rewrite.

Roper said this was because the Development Review Board had not felt the bylaws were sufficiently clear and it left them in a difficult position in making decisions. Roper said that former DRB chair Carla Westine had asked that they “not leave any gray areas.”

In response Hudkins said that the current bylaws gave a lot of power to the DRB to be “agile”  and that making everything black and white leaves “no ability if someone comes up with an innovative idea.” According to Hudkins, such innovation would be “locked out.”

Quinn also asked why there are facade standards in the residential and rural areas. These say that someone building a house must chose four design elements from a list. Roper said those were meant for districts in town to maintain the character of the village and he did not know how those ended up in rural districts.

Commission member Tim Roper wants to move faster in adopting new bylaws in light of the numbers of new land owners in Chester due to Covid

Commission member Barre Pinske said those were aspirational but Hasbrouck shot back that those were “very specific, very clear.”

“I’m not sure my house would meet these,” said Quinn, who also asked why rural buildings had 6,000 square footprint maximums. “If you have 100 acres, does it really matter how big your house is?”

As discussion continued, it was noted that the proposed regulations also says that no new building can have a footprint over 6,000 square feet but that the new public safety building is larger than 7,000 square feet. Members agreed that issue should be revisited. Quinn also asked for the reasoning behind making a house a conditional use in the R-18 district. Roper said it had to do with the length of driveways more than 1,000 feet from the roads and access for emergency vehicles.

Hasbrouck recalled that it was a conditional use “out of the box” when planning consultant Brandy Saxton presented the proposed bylaws so that a house “wasn’t opening up too much of the forest unnecessarily.”

The most surprising answer came to Quinn’s question about why there are two residential districts — Res2 and Res4 — instead of one. Hasbrouck said a neighborhood development program required a density of four homes per acre but after the commission set up that district, the town found it did not qualify for the program. Now, the districts can be merged, she said.

“There’s no reason to have that much complexity in the map,” said Hasbrouck.

Again, as in previous meetings, many discussions included one or another member saying that the commission could fix specific problems that were brought up but it did not appear that a list of those was being compiled.

Whither the bylaws?

After more than 45 minutes, Hasbrouck called time on Quinn’s list of questions, which will be revisited in another meeting, and turned to discuss again the path forward to adopting the bylaws. She said that she had heard from citizens and Select Board members who said that the bylaws needed to be broken down into more accessible pieces. Hasbrouck said that from her experience in information technology it was better to work from small pieces than a whole.

Roper said he objected to that analogy saying it was apples and oranges. “I don’t know how we can compare a software rollout to planning for a town which requires a little bit of a crystal ball and some foresight.” Almost every member cited hearing from residents whose opinions validated their own, except for Pinske, who said he isn’t hearing from anyone.

Chester resident Bill Lindsay told the panel the proposed bylaws would make it more difficult to do business in Chester File photo

Bill Lindsay, a former long-time Select Board member, said he thought the proposed bylaws would be expensive to property owners and defeat those trying to start a businesses under a mountain of regulation. He cited actions that a business owner might take – like paving a parking area – that could trigger a more in-depth review as well as expensive requirements such as landscaping.

This brought up a discussion of some of the items in the proposed bylaws that trigger such reviews. As an example under the proposed bylaws, a person who wants to start a business within the village or business district may need a site plan review or conditional use permit review. Either would trigger the requirement that that business also install bicycle racks for a specific number of riders and within 50 feet of the business entrance or no farther than the closes parking space. This particular example was not discussed at the meeting and is included to clarify the idea of certain reviews triggering other regulations.

Quinn advocated for  adopting the proposed bylaws in pieces, saying, “If you do a wholesale adoption, you will underwrite more risk. When you implement changes in smaller chunks, you mitigates large scale risk.”If we are risk averse we will do it incrementally, if we are willing to underwrite a larger amount of risk associated with many changes at once then I guess that’s a decision the Select Board could make.”

“Certainly a wholesale change is a bolder move,” said Roper. ” I study leadership, leaders lead with bold visionary moves. That helps people understand why I have taken the positions I have on this.” Roper went on to say that it was the Select Board and the town manager who asked the commission to do the full rewrite of the bylaws.

Commission member Peter Hudkins pointed to Table 401 for examples of unintended consequences that need to be addressed. File photo

During an earlier discussion of whether the proposed bylaws are business friendly, Hudkins pointed to Table 401, which he said would trigger other requirements of someone trying to make some improvements.

Roper agreed saying that that the plans were not complete and that table could be revisited. The table defines what requirements those applying for permits will have to fulfill Quinn suggested looking first at Article 3 that regulates development standards, defines uses and provides rules for site development, which he called the foundation for the rest of the document. There were a number of thoughts about how to approach finalizing the proposed bylaws.

Hasbrouck said that there were a number of unintended pieces in Article 3 that have become roadblocks to working it out. Roper agreed saying that a lot of the things that people are objecting to were unintended and the board needs to go back and fix those things rather than going in circles. Hasbrouck suggested using Table 401 as a “jumping off point” to look at Article 3 and that makes it easier to see how the regulation would work “in real life.”

In the end – and after Pinske’s departure – the commission reached consensus to take up Table 401 at the next meeting.

Hudkins said that you don’t see what is triggered by reading Article 3 but Table 401 makes those evident.

“Let’s do it, let’s fix it,” said Roper.

“It’s a place to start,” Hudkins.  “It’s a killer, but it’s a place to start.”

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  1. Barre Pinske says:

    We have a problem that is very clear to me when it comes to planning and zoning in Chester and it parallels one reason alcoholics and drug addicts relapse it’s called terminal uniqueness. In a google search of the word a web site comes up that says “Learn the ways of overcoming terminal uniqueness, which can prevent an individual from seeking much-needed addiction assistance”.

    Another google search shows there are roughly 19,500 towns in the us with 5000 people or less everyone one of them has zoning bylaws. The first town I randomly picked to look at their zoning was Smithville TN. It has a few more people and the same not so unique Live Work Play slogan! Who knew! Within a minute I was reading their bylaws which are much like ours.

    I left the meeting Monday night out of frustration with our boards inflexibility, statements of behind the scenes influence, lack of respect for what we’ve accomplished and one members ongoing thinking they understand what’s right and everyone else is wrong.

    The original zoning for the city of Chicago written in 1926 was done in 16 month with the idea of protecting property values by doing things such as separating homes from slaughter houses by creating zones. Here comes my point in almost three years, a consultant, three previous members, three open houses charts, graphs and maps we have no real consensus on where we are going. Plus we have a chair person who now is saying it’s a “poison pill for businesses” who was the recording secretary for all previous meetings and gave input with out prior concern. It’s not bad for business I was there and have great concern for business in our town. I believe 1976 was the last comprehensive zoning overhaul is it not time plus that is the job we were given. Personally I’d like to see us have the best small town zoning in the US but we can’t do that with out being able to work together. We need to be concerned for our community we have to listen to wants and needs but there is no way everyone is going to be happy. We also, like it or not, have to care about how some things look, water, air, plants, fungus and critters. We can’t change course with every wind change we will be in the rocks but we can and have proven to have flexibility.

    I would like to see comparisons to our zoning with other like towns in the US and see what’s working for others to gain knowledge and reduce fear. We are not a snow globe on a shelf in a Hallmark store we are a town yes unique but not that unique. Please anyone who’s pulling strings behind the scenes would you please come into the light write down your questions and concerns and present them to the whole board or speak during public comments that would be helpful. There is fear among some board members of what’s going to happen when we try to get this passed well let’s get it the best it can be with public input while we are working on it not after it’s finished. I have felt rudderless for a over a year I can’t do my job with out a clear direction open input can help that. Also I don’t want to feel things are happening behind the scenes that makes my time and energy meaningless no one would.